When the UEFA machine comes to town, it’s hard to miss. Throughout Cardiff, up Ninian Park Road and all the way beyond Tudor Street there were the signs draped from the lamp posts, the unmistakable garb that can only signal the commercial behemoth has taken over the city.
But Tuesday’s Super Cup celebration featured other subtle but far more powerful promotional signs. These were the more understated red ones put up in association with the Welsh Government, the Football Association of Wales and the city of Cardiff.
The wording was straightforward. A message honouring Neville Southall’s 92 caps or Michelle Green matching that achievement in the women’s game earlier this year. There were reminders of Ryan Giggs and his contribution to Welsh football.
And yet, it was five words about the man many had come to see that seemed to sum it up best. The poster simply read: ‘Gareth Bale is from Cardiff.’
That never seemed too far from people’s minds as they streamed into the more intimate surroundings of Cardiff City Stadium, just a short walk from the cavernous Millennium variety. With the statue of Cardiff’s FA Cup winning captain Fred Keenor outside, it felt an appropriate setting to cheer on a local boy done good.
And cheer him on they did, reserving the biggest reception for the No 11 despite the names of Cristiano Ronaldo, Toni Kroos, Karim Benzema and James Rodriguez immediately preceding him on the team list. “It’s massive for the city,” said Bale in an interview in the matchday programme. “We haven’t had anything as big as this in a long time.”
It was certainly all there for him to be the hero. But it seems there’s a guy on his own side who wasn’t quite so keen on that idea. Indeed, Ronaldo showed why he remains the main man at the Bernabeu. Bale may have had more shots but it was the Ballon d’Or winner with both the goals in a convincing 2-0 win over Sevilla.
Not that Bale is likely to mind too much. For all the ambitious shots and showmanship, there remains an air of deference when it comes to the Portuguese superstar – and not just in mimicking his physique with his astonishing muscular development.
Under close examination, it’s evident when Bale gets the ball. Any statistics regarding the number of passes between the two men would miss the point. Take the lofted early ball out left to Ronaldo that was intercepted – Bale looks to find his team-mate even when the pass isn’t really on.
When it fails there is the little hand gesture, the determination to catch the eye in order to apologise - like a tennis doubles team tapping fists between points, a game within a game. When it succeeds, you’re reminded why Real Madrid have been crowned Europe’s best team.
The opening goal was a fine example. Daniel Carvajal found Ronaldo who helped the ball on to James Rodriguez. The Colombian fed Bale out left and the Welshman took just a moment to bring the ball under control before instinct kicked in: look for Ronaldo.
In the box, the goalscorer knew the ball was coming his way. An expert cross bypassed the Sevilla defence and Ronaldo slotted it beyond Beto at the far post. The master served by the apprentice.
It’s an arrangement Ronaldo clearly enjoys. Gary Lineker used to say Paul Gascoigne would only pass the ball in such a way that the receiver was left with little alternative to return it to him immediately and there’s an element of this ability to control the flow of an attack in Ronaldo’s play.
For the second goal he was both architect and finisher once more, lifting the ball forwards and simultaneously moving off the left flank to accept the return pass from Benzema before firing left-footed past Beto into the far corner.
Ronaldo’s rewrite complete, there seemed nothing Bale could do to change the script. He tried to bend the night to his will during a three-minute burst midway through the second half, winning two free-kicks in quick succession but seeing the subsequent shots blocked on both occasions. Moments later, a powerful run down the right found James only for his team-mate’s effort to be saved.
Finally, with the last kick of the game, Bale seemed set to get his goal but could only force a dramatic save from Beto instead. Nevertheless, it was an impressive performance that did plenty to satisfy the home audience.
“It’s important to have role models,” he had said in the programme in reference to his impact on Welsh football. In Cardiff, it was Bale’s own role model who took the limelight. In a funny way, you sensed both men were more than content that it should be so.